Life on Mars? Only in The Sun.

In its haste to become the first newspaper to print the “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars” headline, the UK’s Sun website caused a stir last week. Not only was this headline incorrect, it was a wee bit irresponsible.

For starters, no evidence for life has been found on the Red Planet. Second, NASA has not proclaimed such a discovery. In fact, The Sun riled the U.S. space agency so much, this headline prompted NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown to issue the following statement:

“This headline is extremely misleading. This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false.”

So where did it all go so wrong?

This story stems from an astrobiology conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the search for alien life. At this conference, findings by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity were reviewed. One of these findings was the tantalizing discovery of sulfates by the rover in 2004. Where there’s sulfates, water once existed. Where there’s water, life might have existed.

In an exciting twist to this discovery, scientists studying sulfate deposits on Earth (known as gypsum) were asked by scientists in the Mars Program to investigate terrestrial gypsum deposits more closely. Up until now, it was thought that gypsum contained no fossils, but on closer inspection it turns out that ancient gypsum deposits from the Mediterranean Sea (dated to about 6 million years old — when the sea was actually dry) are stuffed full of microscopic fossils of algae and phytoplanktons.

So, on Mars we have sulfates. On Earth we have sulfates (gypsum) full of fossils of aquatic microscopic life. If we know the terrestrial deposits of gypsum contain fossils of basic life forms, perhaps sulfate deposits on Mars would be a good place to start looking for basic ancient extraterrestrial life.

Of course, for the tabloid newspaper, these Martian sulfate deposits became “pond scum” and therefore “evidence” for life on Mars.

In actuality, the text of The Sun article wasn’t that misleading and actually did a good job of reporting the science (apart from the “pond scum” bit). Unfortunately, the title of the article let the rest of the article down, ultimately undermining the journalists’ work.

But, coming from the same publication that printed the silly “Pictures show life on Mars” article from 2008, the “Evidence for life on Mars” headline is pretty tame.

Now, time for the same news with a more appropriate headline by Irene Klotz on Discovery News: “Earth Fossil Find May Lead to Martian Discoveries

Thanks to reader Judy Mason for inspiring this post.

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Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia. Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia.

"Oh, that's a nice view, I hadn't noticed that hill before. Hey, that's a pretty-looking rock!"

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is suffering from amnesia, again.

This is hardly surprising if we consider that the lifespan of Spirit should have been 3 months, the fact that it has lasted 69 months (so far) is nothing short of miraculous. In rover-mission-lifetime years, doesn’t that make Spirit and her twin sister Opportunity 1380 years old? (I decided that a “lifetime” is 60 years, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps that’s not how it works, but for NASA to build a robot that has lived 23 times longer than the mission specified is pretty damn impressive. No wonder Spirit is losing her memory. I’m surprised she hasn’t lost the will to live.

Spirit has lost the use of one of her wheels and remains stuck in the sand… so she is showing her age. But still, 23× longer than planned? When I’m 1380 years old, I hope I’m only suffering amnesia every now and again.


Opportunity Investigates Possible Martian Meteorite


On its epic journey to Endeavour Crater, Mars Expedition Rover (MER) Opportunity passed a suspect looking boulder on July 18th. Dubbed “Block Island” by MER controllers, this dark rock looks very different from its surroundings, so Opportunity has been ordered to go off its planned route by 250 meters and have closer look.

Measuring approximately 0.6 meters across, the jagged specimen could be a meteorite, giving the rover a chance to carry out an in-situ analysis of its composition, determining whether or not this is indeed of extra-martian origin.

The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)

The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)

The next step is for the rover to extend its robotic arm, pressing the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) up against the rock’s surface. The spectrometer will basically give the sample a blast of radiation, consisting of alpha particles and X-rays. The analysis of scattered alpha particles (after they have bounced off the material) will reveal the mass of the elements they collide with and the emission of X-rays will also reveal a lot about the material.

So could this be a meteorite? We’ll have to wait until the little robot has carried out its experiment… she may be getting old, but Opportunity is still carrying out some awesome science.

Source: NASA

I See Mars Faces… Everywhere

The two suspect shapes spotted by Mars conspiracy theorists. Exhibit 1: The Egyptian statue. Exhibit 2: ??

During my search for material for last week’s Wide Angle: Mars Roving on Discovery, I was looking for images snapped by the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. During my trawl around Google Images, I managed to find a high-resolution picture of the rocky outcrop on the side of Victoria Crater when Opportunity was imaging the area in 2006.

I’ve always loved these Victoria images; you can easily see layering in the exposed rock and boulders strewn below. In fact, this could be a black and white picture of the Utah desert, or a wide angle view of the Grand Canyon. But no, this is Mars; lifeless Mars.

Or is it?

One version of the Opportunity image can be found on a conspiracy website, where a ‘study’ has been carried out. And guess what they found?

Oh yes, apparently a Martian civilization worshiped the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, carving a statue more commonly associated with pyramids into the crater wall (“Exhibit A” in the image above). Also, there’s a curiously shaped multi-layer disk on the ground — obviously some kind of alien artifact (“Exhibit B”).


Normally I’d ignore something like this, but I thought I’d have a little fun one evening (because my evenings simply aren’t exciting enough, it seems). Inspired by Phil Plait’s visions of Miss Piggy in a Mars mesa last week, I wanted to test myself and go on a pareidolia hunt of my own, armed with the Victoria crater pic, my imagination and questionable eyesight.

The human brain is a strange old thing at times, creating recognizable features out of random, inanimate objects, and that is exactly what some people use as “proof” of their nutty theory or visions of the second coming. People see Jesus in burnt toast, Michael Jackson in cloud formations and, in this case, ancient Egyptian statues carved into crater rims on Mars.

So have a look at this, I impressed myself (note the outstanding use of Photoshop):

Mars faces:

What I discovered in this single NASA Mars image:

A: Exhibit A – the Egyptian statue.
B: Exhibit B – some other artifact.
C: Admiral "It’s a trap!" Ackbar from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
D: Audry II, the blood-drinking plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
E: Jabba the Hutt, or an angry toad.
F: A gorilla’s head (kinda).
G: Can’t remember what I saw in this… but it’s kinda alien looking… right?
H: Insane-looking face. Could be the Mad Hatter?
I: Weird-looking Picasso face.
J: The alien from Predator.
K: Human head.
L: Another Egyptian statue, head part.
M: Humanoid skull!

I’ve even got a full-resolution version in case you can’t see the fruits of my imagination (all 4MB of it). But who cares if you can’t see Jabba, Ackbar, skulls or statues? That’s not the point; most conspiracy sites skew the facts to convince the reader to believe their false claims anyway. Hmmm… I’m quite good at this, perhaps I should start my own ‘Mars Faces’ conspiracy, only including characters from Star Warshmmm.

I’m personally most impressed with the “humanoid skull” (M), “Admiral Ackbar” (C) and the “insane face” (H). Obviously the ancient Martian civilization were a part of the Empire (not so far, far away), carried out sacrifices on humanoids (bones now littering the plains), worshipped Egyptian kings and had killer rock sculpting skills. Obviously.

Want more Mars faces? We have some puzzles on the subject over at Discovery Space! What are the odds…

40% More Solar Energy For Opportunity


Good news for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, a windy day on the Martian surface has cleared a layer of dust off its solar panels.

Opportunity is currently trundling across the undulating dunes of Meridiani Planum on its way to Endeavour crater, a destination it wont reach for another two years. It needs all the energy it can muster. So, like the fortuitous gust of wind that gave Spirit a 3% boost in energy in February, Opportunity has received what may appear to be a small hurricane in comparison. This gust of wind shifted so much dust caked on the rover’s solar panels, the robot has had an energy increase of 40%.

As of Sol 1850 (April 7, 2009), Opportunity’s solar array energy production has increased to 515 watt-hours. Atmospheric opacity (tau) remains elevated at around 0.95. The dust factor has improved to 0.642, meaning that 64.2 percent of sunlight hitting the solar array penetrates the layer of accumulated dust on the array. The rover is in good health with a rested actuator and extra energy.NASA Opportunity updates

Since Opportunity arrived on Mars five years ago until April 7th, the tenacious rover has travelled 15,114 meters (9.39 miles). For a mission that was only slated to last three months, that’s not a bad distance its clocked up.

Source: NASA

Phoenix is Dead, Spirit is Failing

Mars dust is a big problem for technology; it’s very fine, abrasive and sticks to everything. Airborne dust has been blamed for accelerating Phoenix’s death, and the hardy Mars Exploration Rover Spirit looks like it has finally met its match. The critical issue here is a build-up of the red powder over the surface of the energy-collecting solar panels our robotic explorers depend on to power their experiments and movement over the Martian terrain. If solar cells cannot receive light, electricity cannot be generated, hastening the end of of Phoenix, and possibly one of the rover twins…
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